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chapter three: On the Expression of Thought - Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments 
Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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On the Expression of Thought
Men have two ways of showing what their thinking is: speech and writing.
There was a time when speech seemed worthy of the total surveillance efforts of government. Indeed, if we consider that speech is the indispensable instrument of all plots, the necessary precursor of almost all crimes, the means of communication for all criminal intentions, we can agree that it would be desirable if we could circumscribe its use, in such a fashion as to make its disadvantages disappear while it retained its usefulness.
Why, then, have all efforts to achieve this very desirable goal been renounced? It is because experience has shown that the measures necessary to achieve this produced ills worse than those one was wishful to remedy. Espionage, corruption, informing, calumnies, abuse of confidence, treason, suspicion between relatives, dissensions between friends, hostility between unconcerned parties, a commerce in domestic infidelities, venality, lying, perjury, despotism: such were the elements constituting government interference with speech. It was felt that this was to pay too dearly for the advantage afforded by surveillance. In addition, we learned that it was to attach importance to what should have none. Keeping a record of imprudence turned it into hostility. Stopping fugitive words in flight was to lead to their being followed by bold actions, and it was better, while coming down hard on the deeds which speech might perhaps have led to, to let that which had no results at all just evaporate. Consequently, except in some very rare circumstances—some obviously disastrous eras or very touchy governments which do not disguise  their tyranny at all—society has introduced a distinction which renders its jurisdiction over the word softer and more legitimate. The declaration of an opinion can in a special case produce an effect so infallible that such an opinion must be regarded as an action. Then, if the action is culpable, the utterance must be punished. But it is the same with writings. Writings, like speech, like the most simple movements, can be part of an action. They must be judged as part of that action if it is criminal. But if they do not constitute part of any action, they must, like speech, enjoy complete freedom.
This answers both those men who in our times singled out certain wise heads and prescribed the need to cut them off, justifying themselves by saying that, after all, they were only expressing their opinions; and those others who want to take advantage of this delirium in order to subject all expressions of opinion to the jurisdiction of government.
If you once grant the need to repress the expression of opinion, either the State will have to act judicially or the government will have to arrogate to itself police powers which free it from recourse to judicial means. In the first case the laws will be eluded. Nothing is easier than presenting an opinion in such variegated guises that a precisely defined law cannot touch it. In the second case, by authorizing the government to deal ruthlessly with whatever opinions there may be, you are giving it the right to interpret thought, to make inductions, in a nutshell to reason and to put its reasoning in the place of the facts which ought to be the sole basis for government counteraction. This is to establish despotism with a free hand. Which opinion cannot draw down a punishment on its author? You give the government a free hand for evildoing, provided that it is careful to engage in evil thinking. You will never escape from this circle. The men to whom you entrust the right to judge opinions are quite as susceptible as others to being misled or corrupted, and the arbitrary power which you will have invested in them can be used against the most necessary truths as well as the most fatal errors.
When one considers only one side of moral and political questions,  it is easy to draw a terrible picture of the abuse of our rights. But when one looks at these questions from an overall point of view, the picture of the ills which government power occasions by limiting these rights seems to me no less frightening.
What, indeed, is the outcome of all attacks made on freedom of the pen? They embitter against the government all those writers possessed of that spirit of independence inseparable from talent, who are forced to have recourse to indirect and perfidious allusions. They necessitate the circulation of clandestine and therefore all the more dangerous texts. They feed the public greed for anecdotes, personal remarks, and seditious principles. They give calumny the appearance, always an interesting one, of courage. In sum, they attach far too much importance to the works about to be proscribed.
In the absence of government intervention, published sedition, immorality, and calumny would scarcely make more impact at the end of a given period of complete freedom than spoken or handwritten calumny, immorality, or sedition.
One reflection has always occurred to me. Let us suppose a society before the invention of language, making up for this swift and easy means of communication with other less easy and slower ones. The discovery of language would have produced in this society a sudden explosion. Gigantic importance would surely have been attached to sounds which were still new and lots of cautious and wise minds might well have mourned the era of peaceful and total silence. This importance, however, would gradually have faded. Speech would have become a medium limited in its effects. A salutary suspiciousness, born of experience, would have preserved listeners from unthinking enthusiasm. Finally everything would be back in order, with this difference: now social communication and consequently the perfectioning of all the arts and the correcting of all ideas would have gained an extra medium.
It will be the same with the press wherever just and moderate government does not set about struggling with it. The English government was not at all unnerved by the famous letters of Junius.8 It  knew how to resist the double force of eloquence and talent. In Prussia, during the most brilliant reign, to add luster to that monarchy, press freedom was unlimited. Frederick II in forty-six years never once directed his authority against any writer or writing. This in no way upset the peace of his reign, though it was shaken by terrible wars and he was embattled with the whole of Europe. Freedom spreads calm in the souls and reason in the minds of the men who enjoy this inestimable good, free from anxiety. What proves this is that when Frederick II’s successor adopted the opposite course, a general unrest made itself felt. Writers got into conflict with the government, which also found itself abandoned by the courts. If the clouds which rose all around this horizon, formerly so peaceful, did not culminate in a storm, this is because the very restrictions that Frederick William tried to impose on the expression of thought were influenced by the wisdom of the great Frederick. The new king was held in check by the memory of his uncle, whose magnanimous shadow seemed still to watch over Prussia. His edicts were drafted more in a style of apology than menace. He gave homage to freedom of thought in the preamble to the very edicts aiming to repress it,9 and measures which were in principle abuses of power were softened in execution by a tacit moderation and by the tradition of freedom.
Anyway, government has the same means of defending itself as its enemies have for attacking it. It can enlighten public opinion or even seduce it, and there is no reason to fear that it will ever lack adroit and skillful men who will devote their zeal and talent to it. The government’s supporters ask nothing better than to make themselves out to be courageous and to represent  government apologias as difficult and dangerous. In support of their claims they choose the example of the French government, overthrown, they say, in 1789, because of freedom of the press.10 In fact it was not freedom of the press which overthrew the French monarchy. Press freedom did not create the financial disorder which was the real cause of the Revolution. On the contrary, if there had been freedom of the press under Louis XIV and Louis XV, the insane wars of the first and the costly corruption of the second would not have drained the State dry. The glare of publicity would have restrained the first of these kings in his ventures, the second in his vices. They would not have left the unfortunate Louis XVI with a realm which it was impossible to save. It was not press freedom which inflamed popular indignation against illegal detentions and lettres de cachet.11 It was on the contrary popular indignation which, to counter governmental oppression, grasped not press freedom but the dangerous resort to satire, something which all the precautionary measures of the police never manage to take away from the enslaved people. If there had been freedom of the press, on the one hand there would have been fewer illegal detentions, and on the other, people would not have been able to exaggerate them. The imagination would not have been struck by suppositions whose plausibility was heightened by the very mystery surrounding them. Finally, it was not press freedom which brought about all the infamies and lunacy of a revolution all of whose ills I acknowledge. It was the long deprivation of press freedom which had made the common people of France credulous, anxious, and ignorant and thereby often savage. It is because for centuries we had not dared to demand the rights of the people that the people did not know what meaning to attach to these words suddenly pronounced in the middle of the storm. In  everything people see as freedom’s excesses I recognize only the instruction servitude gives.
Governments do not know the harm they do themselves in reserving to themselves the exclusive privilege of speaking and writing on their own acts. People believe nothing affirmed by a government which does not permit one to reply to it and everything said against a government which does not tolerate scrutiny.
It is these detailed and tyrannical measures against writings, as though they were hostile phalanxes, these measures which, attributing to them an imaginary influence, enlarge their real influence. When men see whole codes of prohibitive law along with hosts of interrogators, they must think attacks repulsed in this way very formidable. Since so much trouble is being taken to keep certain writings away from us, they must say to themselves, the impression they would have on us must probably be a very profound one. They probably contain compelling facts.
The dangers of freedom of the press are certainly not prevented by government means. The government does not succeed in its ostensible aim. The end it does achieve is to curb the thinking of all timid or scrupulous citizens, to deny all access to the complaints of the oppressed, to let abuses become deep-rooted, without any representation being made, to surround itself with ignorance and darkness, to sanctify despotism in its lowest agents, against whom people dare publish nothing, to drive back into men’s inner thoughts bitterness, vengeance, resentment, to impose silence on reason, justice, and truth, without its being able to require the same silence from the audacity and exaggeration which defy its laws.
These truths would be incontestable even in the event that we agreed about all the disadvantages attributed to press freedom. How will matters stand if a deeper analysis leads us to deny these drawbacks and if it is shown that the calamities with which freedom of the press is reproached have for the most part been the result only of its enslavement?
Ordinarily, at the very moment when a dominant faction exercises the most scandalous despotism over the press, it directs this instrument against its opponents and, when by its own excesses this faction has brought about its fall, the inheritors of its power  argue against press freedom, citing the ills occasioned by mercenary writers and authorized spies. This leads me to a consideration which seems to me to weigh very heavily in the question.
In a country still vigorously contested by various groups, when one of these manages to restrain press freedom, it has much more unlimited and formidable power than ordinary despotisms. Despotic governments do not allow freedom of the press; everybody, however, governors and governed, keeps equally quiet. Public opinion is silent; but it remains what it is. Nothing leads it astray or causes it to deviate. But in a country where the reigning faction has seized the press, its writers argue, invent, and calumniate in one direction the way one could do it in all if there were freedom to write. They discuss as though it were a question of convincing. They lose their temper as if there were an opposition. They insult people as if there were a right of reply. Their absurd calumnies precede barbarous persecutions. Their ferocious jests are a prelude to illegal condemnations. The public, far removed, takes this parody of freedom for freedom itself. It draws its opinions from their mendacious, scurrilous satires. It is persuaded by their show of attack that the victims are resisting, just as from afar the war dances of savages might make one believe they are fighting against the unfortunates they are about to devour.
In the large-scale polities of modern times, freedom of the press, being the sole means of publicity, is by that very fact, whatever the type of government, the unique safeguard of our rights. Collatinus could expose Lucretia’s body in the public square in Rome and everybody was apprised of the outrage done to him.12 The plebeian debtor could show his indignant fellow citizens the wounds inflicted on him by the greedy patrician, his usurious creditor. In our era, however, the vastness of states is an obstacle to this kind of protest. Limited injustices always remain unknown to almost all the inhabitants in our huge countries. If the ephemeral governments which have tyrannized France have drawn on themselves public detestation, this is less because of what they have done than because of what they have owned up to. They bragged about their injustices. They publicized them in their  newspapers. More prudent governments would act silently, and the public outlook, which would be disturbed only by dull rumors, intermittent and unconfirmed, would remain uncertain, undecided, and fluctuating. No doubt, as we have already remarked, the repercussive explosion would be only the more terrible, but this would be one ill replacing another.
All defenses—civil, political, or judicial—become illusory without freedom of the press. The independence of the courts can be violated in scornful mockery of the best-drafted constitution. If open publication is not guaranteed, this violation will not be checked, since it will remain covered by a veil. The courts themselves can prevaricate in their judgments and overthrow due process. The only safeguard of due process is, once again, open publication. Innocence can be put in irons. If open publication does not warn the citizens of the danger hovering over all their heads, the dungeons, abetted by the universal silence, will retain their victims indefinitely. Persecution can be for opinions, beliefs, or doubts, and when no one has the right to call public attention to himself, the protection promised by the laws is only a chimera, another danger. In countries where there are representative assemblies, national representation can be enslaved, mutilated, and calumniated. If printing is only an instrument in the hands of the government, the whole country will resound with its calumnies, without truth finding a single voice raised in its favor. In sum, press freedom, even if it were accompanied by no legal consequence, would still have an advantage in a number of cases, such as when senior members of government are ignorant of the outrages being committed, or in others when they may find it convenient to feign such ignorance. Press freedom meets these two difficulties. It enlightens government and prevents it deliberately closing its eyes. Forced to learn of the facts which happen unbeknown to it and to admit it knows of them, it will less often dare to legitimate the abuses it finds convenient to permit, seemingly in ignorance of them.
All the thoughts just presented to the reader apply only to the relations of government to the publicizing of opinion. Individuals whom this publicity offends, either in their interests or their honor, always retain the right to demand reparation. Every man has the right  to invoke the law in order to repulse the ill done to him, whatever weapons it employs. Individual campaigns against calumny have none of the disadvantages of government intervention. No one has an interest in claiming he has been attacked nor in having recourse to strained interpretations in order to aggravate the charges directed against him. Trial by jury would moreover be a guarantee against these abuses in interpretation.
[8. ]“The Letters of Junius” appeared anonymously on 21 January 1769 in Woodfall’s newspaper, Public Advertiser. He published them in complete form in 1772, but other incomplete editions had already come out. The purpose of these letters was to discredit the policies of the duke of Grafton and Lord North. The anonymity of their author has never been definitively unmasked. The names of Gibbon, Burke, and Paine have been mentioned, but various clues permit us to believe it more likely that Sir Philip Francis was the author. These letters are still famous for their style, which constitutes them as a masterpiece of the pamphlet form. See the entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, vol. 13 (1973), s.v. Junius.
[9. ]Constant was probably familiar with the work of Louis-Philippe Ségur, Histoire des principaux événements du règne de F. Guillaume II, roi de Prusse, Paris, F. Buisson, an IX (1800), which gives the text of this Edict of Censorship (t. I, pp. 400–405) and gives a commentary (ibid., pp. 62–64). Frederick William II declares indeed at the beginning of this text: “Although we are perfectly convinced of the great and diverse advantages of a moderate and well-regulated freedom of the press in terms of expanding the sciences and all useful knowledge [. . .] experience has shown us, however, the troublesome consequences of complete freedom in this regard.”
[10. ]Without being able to be categorical on this point, since he has not found the text to which reference is made here, Hofmann thinks, nevertheless, that Constant is referring to the editors of the Journal de l’Empire or of the Mercure de France, men completely devoted to Napoleon. See the study by André Cabanis, “Le courant contre-révolutionnaire sous le Consulat et l’Empire” (in the Journal des Débats and the Mercure de France), Revue des sciences politiques, No. 24, 1971, pp. 33–40. Among these editors, there were Fiévée and Geoffroy, whose target was often the ideology of the Enlightenment and 1789 and who advocated all-powerful monarchy. One finds, in particular, in an article in the Mercure de France (No. 257, 21 June 1806, pp. 533–554) signed by De Bonald, this reflection which must have struck Constant: “Freedom of thought was only therefore freedom to act; and how could one demand from government an absolute freedom of action, without rendering pointless all the pains taken by the administration to maintain peace and good order, or rather, without turning society upside down?” (ibid., p. 551). And the same author a little further on identifies “diversity of religious and political opinion” as “the main cause of the French Revolution” (ibid., p. 552).
[11. ][Lettres de cachet. Letters bearing the king’s seal, containing orders for imprisonment of individuals or their banishment without trial. Translator’s note]
[12. ]Titus Livy, Histoire romaine, I, 59, 3, éd. cit., t. I, p. 95.